A Review of “Women in the Church? A Historical Survey”
Magistra 21.2 (Winter 2015): 51-80
In her article, Women in the Church? A Historical Survey, Magdalena Kubow begins her conclusion with “the argument that women have historically participated in sacramental orders does not wish to eliminate the apostolic tradition; however, it does not regard the exclusivity of males to the apostolic tradition as a timeless truth. It sees it as purposeful exclusion, acceptable in the past but no longer acceptable in the present” (76). This is a succinct, yet pithy summary of her work. Her premise is that women were, along with men, founders and leaders of the early Christian Church, and the focus of her survey is to demonstrate how this process of exclusion developed over time, slowly eroding away the female role until all traces of it disappeared by the Middle Ages. Unlike other writers on this topic, Kubow does not spend much time looking at what Scriptures say about it but concentrates on examining the historiography of more current Church documents and teachings. The primary underlying factors to which she attributes this erosion include the shift of church ministry from the private to the public sphere, the development of market economy, and the influence of Roman law on the formation and establishment of Church law. All told, this is a good overview of a variety of influences that led to the demise of female leadership roles over the first few centuries of early Christianity. And it is the perfect resource for an audience who knows enough theology, history, philosophy and cultural development to understand the implications of what she covers in it.
While I found the majority of Kubow’s composition interesting, creative and well-founded, her opening six pages were not as strong as they could have been. First, she offers an opinion that misconstrues a foundational Church document. Then she presents several of the Church’s current arguments against women’s ordination to the priesthood, to which she simply counters with historical evidence that women had once participated in the diaconate. And, to support a later argument, she includes a citation that misrepresents the theology behind a major liturgical element of the Catholic mass.
To my first point, that she misconstrues a foundational Church document, Kubow offers an opinion taken from someone else’s work in such a way that it is clear she shares it. She references Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII’s papal encyclical of April 1963, which she notes was interpreted as “opening just a crack the door to the priesthood for women” (51) based on his conclusion that man and woman have a right to “follow a vocation to the priesthood or the religious life” (51). In my opinion, either Kubow or Margaret Sittler Ermarth, whom Kubow cites, or both, are stretching to construe that the Pope’s comment refers woman-to-priesthood in this statement. Although Pope John XXIII often wrote about the Church looking to the future, and the Church is always referred to in the feminine, the correlations in his statement are meant to be read as man-to-priesthood and woman-to-religious life.
To my second point, that Kubow offers evidence that women were ordained to the diaconate in the early Church to counter the current arguments against women being ordained to the priesthood today, she is not comparing the same role. There is a major difference between being an ordained priest and being an ordained deacon in the Catholic Church, and while that has not always been so, it has been for most of the Church’s history. A priest holds the second highest position in Holy Orders, with the bishop taking first place. He assists the bishop, serves as a mediator between God and the human person, and confers all sacraments except for Holy Orders (only the bishop can do this) – which includes celebrating Mass and the Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Baptism and Holy Matrimony. The deacon holds the third position in Holy Orders, serves to assist the priest but reports directly to the bishop. Seminarians become transitional deacons on their way to priestly ordination, and as of Vatican II, laymen selected by the diocese can become permanent deacons. Their primary responsibilities include proclaiming the Gospel, preaching homilies at Mass, ministering the Eucharist, and serving the parish. They can baptize, as well as marry and perform funeral rites that do not include a celebration of the Eucharist. Consecrating the Eucharist is the realm of priests and bishops alone, and it is this action that renders the Mass Heaven on Earth.
As I continued to read, it occurred to me that Kubow may have been trying to make the point that evidence exists of women being ordained as deacons, or more accurately deaconesses, during the time before the structural hierarchy of the Church was established, when the only role of formal ministry that existed was that of the diaconate. And as the hierarchy strengthened, the role of deaconess met its demise. I chose to give her the benefit of the doubt, although I hesitated when I read the next few pages, as she cites dates that do not directly support the points she is trying to make. This tends to cause a bit of confusion and leads the reader to wonder which side of the debate she is advocating. This sense of uncertainty is disorienting and detrimental to the trust that should exist between reader and writer.
Kubow states in her opening paragraph that “the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith justifies their position by arguing that women have never been ordained into sacramental orders and that this has been the unbroken historical practice for the last two thousand years” (51). And she counters, but not for several pages, that “the constant tradition of which the Congregation speaks did not originate two thousand years ago, but was born in the twelfth century when the exclusion of women from the diaconate was formally established in canon law” (53). While her citations are factual, they are confusing as any student of Church structure knows the hierarchy was in place well before the twelfth century. And it is this hierarchy that eliminated the role of deaconess earlier than the twelfth century.
To my last point, that Kubow includes citations that misrepresent the theology behind a major liturgical element of the Catholic mass, she writes that women are not able to invoke the Holy Spirit for the celebration of the Eucharist in the Catholic Church. She also states that the Church teaches that women are “incapable” of doing so as if to suggest that we lack the actual capability. She rightly clarifies that it is the Holy Spirit “who alone transforms the bread and wine into the Eucharist” (54). But then she quotes Fr. Bernard Haring as questioning, when speaking about invoking the Holy Spirit, “‘how are women inferior to men?’ Saying ‘this is my body’ has nothing to do with the priest’s own masculinity as he is not speaking in his own name; therefore women ‘can cultivate Eucharistic memory as well as a man’” (54). What Kubow has done in this one paragraph is cobble together a series of thoughts that do not belong together, and I will attempt to untwist them.
To her statement about the Church teaching that women are incapable of calling on the Holy Spirit, incapable is not the correct word. The Church teaches that this is not a question of capability but a question of role, which is evident in Kubow’s correct statement that transubstantiation – the change of the substance or essence of the bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ – is the doing of the Holy Spirit. Then there are Fr. Haring’s quotes which look as if they are mixed in with Kubow’s own thoughts, and that makes me question whether she is trying to tie together bits and pieces of what he has said to support her point. The Church does not teach that women are inferior to men. While society may have been responsible at one time for that interpretation, bolstered by the misinformed teachings of a few church leaders, the idea of male-female complementarity – God’s deliberate design of male and female, which together comprise the covenant of redemption – is evident from the Book of Genesis to the Book of Revelation. The inclusion of Haring’s rhetorical question is as baffling as it is and distracting.
When a priest recites “this is my body” during the Eucharistic liturgy, he is quoting the
words of Christ to his apostles during the Last Supper. Throughout the whole act of consecration, the priest is serving in persona Christi, in the person of Christ, and because Jesus was a man when he was on earth and charged his apostles, who were all men, with the power to sanctify, we believe the role of in persona Christi is inherently male. There is a reason God created men and women differently, but as that topic exceeds the bounds of this paper, allow me to simply say that as we are different, so are our gifts. To wrap up the dissection of the preceding paragraph and answer the last sentence, yes, women have the capability to cultivate Eucharistic memory, but it is simply not their role. The theology is deep and wide beyond this statement; suffice it to say those who protest to the contrary are not giving that theology the authority and detailed study it deserves. It is inaccurate to say what the priest is doing during the liturgy is merely reminding us of the Last Supper, when, in fact, what he is doing is calling on the Holy Spirit to bring us into the sacrifice of Christ.
Why did I keep reading after plowing through Kubow’s first six pages, which were wobbly at best? Because right in the middle of all of this, she made a statement that is at the heart of this and many other issues in Christianity: “Only since Pope Pius XII’s encyclical letter, Divino afflante spiritu, issued in 1943, have Catholic biblical scholars been liberated to use the tools of historical criticism to assess the biblical foundations of church teachings. This suggests that the question of the ordination of woman has been considered in its modern formulation for no longer than 63 years” (54). Bingo! So, while I would approach any commentary she presented on theology or liturgy with skepticism, I felt her command of history might prove to be stronger.
Kubow’s historiography focuses on two historical assertions of the Roman Catholic Church, also known as the Western Church: that a female diaconate did not exist, or, if it did, it was not authentically sacramental. To address the first, she reviews the destruction of the wealth of ancient libraries over the centuries, which is enough to make any historian cry. And she points out that much of what has been used as source material for the Roman Catholic Church’s contention is what it decided to adopt when the Catholic Church split in 1054 A.D. The richness, the details, and most of the writings of the Early Church Fathers come from the Eastern Church, which is a subtle but important detail when one examines the history of the relationship of the two churches over the last millennium. At this point, Kubow gets into some of the New Testament evidence in support of the female diaconate, and also cites a bit of what the Early Church Fathers wrote in support of it. Then she reaches 325 A.D., when Christianity was established as the religion of state under Constantinople. At this point, “the Church began attracting members of municipal ruling elites who were professionally trained for public life and experienced in public politics… the new leaders of the church were not as comfortable with women’s leadership in the churches. By shifting church practice and ministry obligations from a largely private sphere into the public sphere, which was largely patriarchal in belief, practice, and law, the role of women was drastically reduced” (60). This is a rather unique thread.
Kubow then follows a path I have seen elsewhere, which nonetheless intrigues me and is bound to provide rich detail on closer examination. “Roman law in effect during the time of Jesus shaped much of Church law in the Catholic Church… As the Church became publicly institutionalized, it adopted Roman law as its own and in spite of a slight relaxation in laws (in later years)… the overall inferior status of women remained in place” (61). She makes a pivotal observation that “during the Middle Ages priesthood was redefined as a role of privilege, power and authority, not a life commitment to ministry and service” (77). And as we enter the medieval era, when religion was the underpinning of daily life, we see the “changing social status of labour and a shift from a generally private to public economic market” (64), which impacted both the role of women in society and the practices of the Church.
The change in the market economy and its impact is an interesting dynamic to ponder. She writes that “the primary purpose of mentioning these complex changes in labor, production and gender dynamics occurring in the secular sphere… is to provide a general understanding of the framework in which misogyny has been built into the very foundation of the symbol systems of Western civilization, that the subordination of women comes to be seen as natural, hence it becomes invisible” (65). And Kubow ties up this section with “It was medieval thinkers who constructed the theological framework that underpins the structures of ministry and hierarchy that society continues to uphold. They moulded the sacrificial focus of the priesthood, the feudal power structures of the Church, the exclusion of women from all authority based on Roman law which they had made the basis of Church law” (67).
The rest of Kubow’s survey consists of familiar ground, covering some of the ancient texts and a bit more of the primary evidence. Within the Apostolic Constitutions, circa 380 A.D., we see that “the female ordination rite, when juxtaposed on the male ordination rite, is essentially identical. This aspect is crucial when addressing the question whether in fact the female diaconate was fully sacramental rather than a service which was merely blessed” (70). Thus, Kubow observes, “it is evident that the exclusion of women from sacramental orders is based on patriarchal tradition, which was strengthen by Roman law, rather than a clear and convincing argument based on historical tradition, Scripture, or theology” (72). She goes on to write about St. Olympias, St. Hildegard of Bingen, and St. Catherine of Sienna, women she sees as having been particularly influential within the Church during their time (400A.D., 1098 A.D. and 1347 A.D., respectively). While none were deaconesses, the latter two are Doctors of the Church, a rare and distinguished title conferred to saints recognized by the Catholic Church as having particular importance, typically in their contribution to theology and doctrine. There are thirty-six Doctors of the Church, only four of whom are women (the others are St. Teresa of Avila and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, both Carmelite mystics – the former from the sixteenth century and the latter from the nineteenth century).
Kubow offers that “patriarchal religion supports and perpetuates patriarchy” (79). She concludes that “without the wisdom and collaboration of women in leadership roles, the church, a sign and instrument of unity with God and among all people, is diminished” (80). This echoes my sentiments exactly when I have written in earlier pieces that without the inclusion of women in significant, material leadership roles within the Roman Catholic Church, something will always be lacking.
In this article, Magdalena Kubow reiterated threads I am familiar with and introduced new ones. As this article is meant to serve as an overview, there is plenty of detail to uncover in the course of digging deeper. My only surprise in Kubow’s work was the absence of any commentary on the impact of ancient Greek philosophy on Roman law and society, as well as on the thinking of the Early Church Fathers. Regardless, Kubow introduces her readers to a handful of wonderful sources and authors, as well as presents several areas to consider when examining why women are not ordained in the Roman Catholic Church today.